cousins

One of the things that I reflect on a lot is the power and importance of stories both the kind that inspire wonder and the kind that frame our experience of the world – I am especially interested in the power we all have to shape the stories that define and enrich our lives.

Here are five very short stories built off of real memories I have about my cousins, my sister and me. They were composed as a gift of stories for the five of us in December 2012.

Alison

When I was seven or eight, I went with my parents and sister to Michigan to visit our Gramma and Grampa. My cousin Alison was there when we arrived, having been deposited by her parents several weeks before and it had been decided that we were going to bring her back to Massachusetts at the end of our trip. The distance between Ypsilanti and Boston is 750 miles; cutting through Pittsburgh to visit a great Aunt brings it up to 850.  My later self would probably have attempted it in one stretch.  For my two parents with three young children it took substantially longer, at least three nights on the road.

Having cousin Ali along, who was three years older than either me or my sister was exciting. I’m sure she changed the family dynamic in many ways that I did not appreciate at the time – cementing the three of us kids together into an amiable gang and dispelling the sort of energy that was likely to lead to the two of us siblings bickering – but the contribution that I remember most distinctly, over twenty years later, is the stories that she told us.

It is possible that the storytelling began at Gramma and Grampa’s house, or perhaps in the car on our first day in order to avoid a fight, but by the end of the trip the numbered installments reached well into the twenties or thirties and a dull road trip became an experience of anticipation and wonder. The three days we spent together seem to stretch into weeks in my memory as the stories, which were really one large and connected story, wound their way through our imaginations.

What I do not remember clearly at all are specific details of plot, though it seems as though the narrative centered on a set of twins, one girl and one boy, who habitually stumbled out of their garden gate and down rabbit holes into other worlds. These worlds of flight and fancy, of underwater kingdoms and other distant lands were incredible. Every sort of exciting thing came alive as the two of us hung on Ali’s words, each new segment starting off fast paced and ending in a cliffhanger that kept us asking to hear what happened next. The story continued as we huddled around campfires, sipped juice boxes by the side of the road in the middle of the day or walked along the banks of a campground pond, carefully avoiding assertive geese and their numerous droppings.

As the story progressed, marvelous details from earlier segments began to blend together in my head, several times I remember stepping back from the tale determined to write some of it down, but I never did. I’m sure, now, that a child’s story to her young cousins could not possibly hit my thirty year old ears with the same force and intensity that it had for my seven year old self.  Ali was still a kid, had the credibility of a kid, but was old enough to be able to create a narrative that I could not imagine thinking up by myself and it was this brilliant realization that seemed so amazing. What stays with me today are not the garden gates and rabbit holes, but the sense that a story, well told, can bind us together and utterly transform the way that we experience our lives. It is at the core of my belief in a certain kind of magic.

Joy

When I was thirteen years old, my cousin Joy graduated from college. She was the first of us kids to leave home and we had gone down to see her at school several times; but though my sister had spent weekends there unescorted, I had always visited in the context of parental family.

There was quite a contingent in Providence that day, my parents, Joy’s parents, my sister, her sister, her brother, her sister’s boyfriend and me. It was decided that the grown-ups would share a hotel room and the rest of us would crash on the floor of Joy’s room. Joy’s off campus apartment was impressive, a first floor flat in an old building with high ceilings and lots of light. It was so cool to think about what her life must have been like there – away from parents and suburban home towns, seemingly able to do whatever she wanted. I remember her saying how much she loved a framed photograph my aunt took of her old Raggedy-Ann doll, hanging on a clothesline. It seemed like such a mature way to be reminded of the beloved things of childhood; one that fit tastefully into her new surroundings and was a bridge between the accomplished woman she was becoming and the Punky Brewster fanatic she had been.

After the grownups retired, the rest of us walked around the neighborhood and through campus in the warm spring evening air. I learned that Portuguese bakeries had really good sweet breads, and that drinking a cup of something called apple cider vinegar, heated with local honey, every morning was good for your health. I don’t remember everything we talked about as we wandered, but it was the first time I can recall being with my cousins and feeling that we were not defined by our identity as children.

As the sun went down and twinkling lights of outdoor festivities illuminated the tree lined quads and paths of the campus, we headed back to the apartment, passed around a couple of beers and hung out with each other, eventually crashing in some sort of tetris pattern on the floor of Joy’s room. I don’t actually remember anything about the graduation itself. It’s possible that there were not enough tickets for my sister and me to attend; if I did go, it was not the ceremony, but our time together and my impression of her college life that has stayed with me.

Joy was planning to go to Haiti with her best friend after graduation to work for a charity there for a year; after that, she wasn’t sure, but she wanted to be a writer. One book about lesbian sex on her bookshelf was the only evidence I remember of her dating life. She had come out to the family a few years earlier, but I still had another decade in the closet ahead of me. Those hours of mature friendship between us cousins were a revelation and brought home to me the fact that Joy had already moved into a wider, more textured world toward which the rest of us were inevitably drifting.

Reese

We had taken the train to Marseille the night before, bought a bag of black cherries and walked along the Mediterranean Sea eating them before retiring to a room in the cheapest hotel we could find. The dark juice stained our fingers and caused Reese’s mouth to itch. This trip was our dream trip, a tour of Europe in two weeks with each other, cousins and best friends. For a sentimental history nerd like me, it was a chance to see some of the many things I had read about in books; the monuments of Paris, canals of Venice and castles of Bavaria. For Reese, it was a chance to prove to himself that, two years after knee surgery, he could, in fact, carry a backpack across Europe.

So far the trip had been good, moments like the cherry stained walk in Marseille and a similar meandering tour of Versailles had allowed us to catch up on each other’s lives in a deep and meaningful way. We were both in college and Reese had recently fallen in love with a woman who was flying to meet us in Florence in a couple of days.

We woke up early that morning, strapped our packs on and staggered out into the Provençal sun on our way to the train station. I should probably stop here to tell you that, for some reason, we had withdrawn all of the money we had budgeted for the trip ahead of time. This inexplicable act was made lucky, in a way, when I managed to leave my ATM card at home the day we flew out of Logan. These two facts meant that, at that moment, that morning in Marseille, my travel wallet contained not only my passport and Eurorail pass (Reese was keeping my return plane ticket), but all of the money I was going to have any access to for the next week and a half.

The streets were relatively empty and the sun was glaring in its ascent. A young man came up to the two of us rather desperately, trying to relay a story and ask for help.  In French accented with pantomime, he began to describe how he had been attacked. At one point, as he stepped away from me, I noticed the lanyard of my wallet moving behind his back. I grabbed his wrist and yelled.

Immediately Reese pivoted, pinning the stranger’s arms behind him and putting a scarred knee into his back. I should mention that I am over six feet tall and weighed well over three hundred pounds that day; Reese on the other hand is quite a bit smaller than me and, on that day, was also a girl with rather long blond hair. While it was no surprise to the two of us that he was quite capable of protecting his ‘little’ cousin, it was quite a surprise to our would-be thief. My wallet was dropped and Reese let the man go so he could run away. A few observers laughed from the patio of a nearby café and we made our way to the train station.

“Let’s not talk about that until we are safely home” suggested Reese as we waited for our train; we had been pretty silent in the hour since our mugging. I, too, was alarmed by the magnitude of what almost happened and exhilarated by the way that we had averted disaster. My wallet was now safely around my neck and tucked under my shirt. Our thief had not gotten away with any cash, but he had robbed us of our naïve saunter and filled our world with new potential predators.

The trainride from Marseille to Milan is beautiful, it passes through Nice and along the Côte d’Azur before heading inland. As we sat, looking out, the shock of the morning began to fade and the pleasure of being halfway around the world on a train by the sea mellowed our mood. There were four Italian passengers sitting opposite us; a married couple in middle age and another woman with her aging mother. We each began, passively, to listen to the conversation they were having, appreciating the friendly tenor without understanding any of the words.

At one point, the three women began talking about food, arguing over regional and family recipes, suddenly the vocabulary was familiar and Reese and I shared a secret smile. Soon after, we became the topic of interest and were asked where we were going and where we had been. The lack of a common tongue meant that the conversation was fairly basic and involved a lot of place names and exclamations of “bella!” The good will and friendly manner, however, communicated much more. As we approached Milan the train was running late and we readied ourselves to transfer quickly to the train to Florence. Our Italian friends smiled warmly and anxiously hoped that we would be able to make it. We burst out of the car and into the crowded station riding a wave of goodwill from people we would never see again.

As we waited in a line to reserve new tickets for a later train, I reflected on how we had felt so supported by the same universe that had seemed so hostile mere hours before, the amazing way we had been reminded, so abruptly, about the menace and kindness of strangers.

Leona

Once upon a time there were two little kids, a girl named Leona and her brother, and they were wild children. They ran around the house naked, turning rocking chairs and couch cushions into elaborate forts and working together to evade bath time.  With the help of their father, they traveled to Narnia and Wonderland and a secret garden in the moors of Britain. On other days they found the silky nightgowns of their mother and became fairies. Leona was a fairy princess with some sort of sleeping disorder and the little boy, a fairy godmother who would wake the princess up and get her ready for the ball. Still other days they were cowboys or adventurers, or two little runaway children making their way defiantly through the back yard with nothing but packed lunches and a radio flyer wagon. Through it all, they laughed heartily, the screams and giggles of childish joy.

Over time, the wild and fantastic play of the children declined as they found other friends to have adventures with. The boy decided that little sisters were meant to be picked on and left out and Leona decided that neurotic brothers should be poked and aggravated. In place of their creative play, the two children discovered new ways to tease and torture one another. They still ran through the house loudly, but their noises were uglier noises, the whining cries and angry yelling of discord. They fought so much that their parents brought them to a special place where they played with dolls and talked to a nice lady about each other. In time, they screamed at each other less, but had forgotten how to connect.

During this period of strained relations, Leona and her brother stopped being little children and became adolescents and their exterior social world became marked with all the trappings and complications of adolescence. Leona became friends with people who felt more connected to ‘reality’ and made her family feel like a place she belonged to less and less. Her brother became introspective and solitary, filled with anxiety; he began to wonder if he was ever going to be comfortable in social situations again.

But as these things happen, the intensity of this disconnection ebbed and the siblings began to see one another again, to tentatively smile across the neutral zone between their rooms. Leona began to trust her brother with some of the secrets and stresses of her new life and her brother was able to keep those secrets and learn, from her perspective, about the world. As they entered High School, Leona and her brother began to share some friends and, through these friends, became better friends again. Joint sleepovers and a growing ability to manage their frustrations without taking them out on each other led to new possibilities for laughter, comfort and commiseration. They were no longer the same two children they had been, but they were people who trusted each other and knew how to recognize and respect one another; how to laugh heartily late into the night, not without conflict, but through it.

One last story.

The five of us sat together in the living room of my cousins’ house. It was dark, possibly raining, and the warmth and light of the familiar house were a comfort. In another room, the adults were fighting after carefully smiling though decades of building tension that amounted to a very civil war. My mother and her sister were perhaps months to a year away from a period of icy estrangement which would last through two years of separate holidays and radio silence, only thawing with the death of our grandfather and the breakup of my aunt and uncle’s marriage.

Joy was back from college with a shaved green head and a brand new lesbian identity, Ali was in for the night, choosing to spend the evening with us, rather than with her boyfriend and busy social circle. Reese (still years away from becoming Reese, proper), Leona and I were there in part because we were still too young to have made other plans. We had all, finally, passed through adolescence and were well suited to be painfully aware of all of our parents’ flaws and shortcomings.

And we realized that we liked what we had with each other; that we had known one another forever and liked our particular feeling of family; that we didn’t want to drift apart or turn into our parents who spoke without the ability to be unguarded and emotionally present with each other. We knew on some level we were all becoming adults and that our relationships with each other were changing and swiftly becoming dependent on our own will, rather than filial obligation but we didn’t know what that would mean in practical terms.

I don’t recall who pulled out the piece of paper, or first suggested drafting a statement, but soon we were all engaged in creating the document, a declaration of our commitment to each other. We agreed to meet together at least once, every year – and to want to see each other, and to not let things come between us like they had come between our parents. I remember a boyfriend/girlfriend clause was very contentious, others felt that future partners should be invited to our gatherings while I was less convinced. I’m glad now that the motion passed.

We were old enough to see everything that was wrong about the adult world ahead of us but too young to appreciate the complex situations that lead people to mask their feelings, or have strained relationships. We knew that we loved each other and were naïve enough to believe that that should be enough, that a lack of love must be what had come between our mothers. I don’t know who has kept their copy of the document, it has been over a decade since I’ve seen mine. But it is probably safe to say that we have all struggled at times to keep up our end of the bargain.

What I didn’t understand then, but have a better handle on now is that intimacy and emotional closeness is not the same as a relationship without conflict; that it was likely the lack of tools our mothers had to be in conflict with each other openly and lovingly that allowed feelings of frustration to build and become unmanageable; that the quality of our time together is not related to the quantity or specific form of that time and our ability to remain close is not measured by whether or not we manage to get together at some sort of idyllic family picnic every year. What I hope is still clear so many years later, is how much we love each other and want to be in relationship with each other, despite the different ways we conduct our lives, or relate to ourselves and our past.

Anyway, that night, the five children who were becoming adults finished the document over which they had been laboring, the strained conversation of their parents broke apart and my sister and I were collected for the return trip home. As I lay in my bed that night, I felt the warmth of family in a new way; new because I was aware of the extent to which it was something I was actively choosing to create. And sleep came for all of the cousins one after another and they were in each other’s lives forever after.